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Street food binging in Amritsar

Amritsar’s street specialities keep alive its foodie reputation but I managed to have the best thin-crust pizza in India in this chicken tikka town

Almost the first bite that I have in Amristar, fabled city of food and worship, is strangely enough from a thin-crust pizza. But what a bite! My five-year-old in her infinite wisdom has decided to forgo local specialities being served up by the charming chef at Ista, our hotel, and opted, instead, to go Italian in this kulcha city. But the thin-cruster — with a child-friendly, grilled chicken topping — is so inviting that I promptly dig in, forgetting my travel mantra of eating only as the locals do. It is a choice that I don’t regret. This is the one of the best pizzas I have ever eaten (in a decade-long career as a food critic), including in Italy. The crust is just right, the mozzarella suitably stringy and the chicken, umm, in kukad-land, that’s one thing they always get right.

The pizza may as well have set the tone for our visit. Amritsar, after all, is a town in flux. Ista, that opened about two years ago is the city’s first five star hotel, there is a huge mall adjoining it —popular for weekend parenting— which opened scarcely six months ago. There is a multiplex of equally recent provenance, a day-old flyover connecting the old city to the GT Road, and, yes, KFC and McDonald’s. The last have finally found a toehold in this foodie city just a couple of months ago. Does the old Amritsar live — beyond Wagah’s touristy tamasha and the mesmeric Golden Temple? We’ll find out.

But day one is reserved for the spa. For all its holiness and history, Amritsar is emerging as favourite modern-day spa destination for Dilliwallahs and others. While the colonial Rajit Savaasa has a decent enough spa managed by ITC Welcomheritage, Ista is driving another set of tourists to this city. With Ananda in the Himalayas for its sister property, the hotel has a huge reputation to protect. And it does.

The “stone therapy” that I undergo is proof enough. Hot black basalt stones and chilled white marbles are alternately used for a firm and relaxing massage that leaves my back finally painfree. There is a rose quartz facial that a friend raves about (beginning with a whole back massage because for your skin to be rejuvenated, it is essential for all stress and negativity to drain away; can’t argue with such logic). But the best bit is the sub-Delhi prices. Considering that both the products and the therapists are the same as at Ananda, these are a steal. The costliest treatment is all of Rs 2,500 as against the usual Rs 3,500 and upwards in Delhi.

The hotel looks and feels like a business destination but it is really a combination of the warmth of the service staff and technology that works for it: The lifts are superfast, zipping up to the 19th floor, where I am staying, in just under a minute and the latest security systems — not to be seen at even the smartest Delhi hotel—are in place. For you to access your floor, for instance, you’d need to swipe your room key in the lift.

So far all what we’ve seen is the new Amritsar. But a round trip on a cycle rickshaw in the old city convinces me of tradition. For a princely sum of Rs 50 (round trip), I go rick-hopping from one foodie fix to another: At the impossibly narrow Katra Ahluwalia, adjacent Jalianwalla Bagh, a jalebi shop of no name sells the best in town. Faint-hearted tourists often get pointed towards Novelty at Lawrence Road for the best chaat (aloo tikkis are made with onions and black gram and with the potatoes shallow fried even before they are made into tikkis and fried again – no don’t watch calories here) and jalebis. But this is the it place.

Outside the temple, there are also shops selling badiyan (made from dried urad dal seasoned with a variety of things, including guava) and aloo papad, another traditional treat. I stop to pick up a bundle, and upon inspection, find the papads to be exactly what you’d buy in Benares. The shopkeeper, an Aggarwalji, whose family has been in the city for 200 years, offers a plausible explanation: women from UP traditionally settled in this town have been running this thriving home-business.

The rick puller keeps up a constant chat: The best milk barfi is to be found at the Longewala Mata Mandir near the Golden Temple, he tells me, and then takes me to Gyan Halwai, opposite DAV College, for lassi. When it arrives, the frothy concoction topped with cream, in big steel tumblers is intimidating. I can barely manage a quarter of a glass.

The walled city around the Golden Temple, the oldest part of Amritsar (look here for flights to Amritsar), is vegetarian. So, are some of the oldest dhabas here. Bharawan Dhaba (thus called because it was set up by two brothers) was established in 1912 by Jagannath Vij, well before the Partition exodus made eating out acceptable. According to Vij’s grandson, who now mans this destination, in the earlier days, people would get their atta and ghee and other ingredients and merely have these cooked here. Today, of course, this is a bustling enterprise. House speciality dal makhani is slow cooked in a copper vessel for an entire night. It’s a place for a whiff of nostalgia even if the setting has pastic-y table tops.

The other instutution is Kesar ka dhaba but I am still in a stupor before the rick takes me to Hindu College, next to which stands another Amritsari favourite: Ahuja Lassi. In the mornings, you can sample their famous kesar ki lassi—flavoured with saffron (saffron “threads” are ground and mixed with milk before the yoghurt is set) but even the usual non-flavoured glass is creamy and lip-smacking.

Having finally junked the rick, I head out to Lawrence Road for some non-vegetarian treats. The tawa meatwallah near Adarsh Talkies has shut down, Beera’s chicken (for tandori style eats) at Manjithia Road is still the best place for fowl, but Surjeet, mentioned in Lonely Planet and a favourite with Bollywood stars, is clearly thriving. Instead of the small fish shop that he started out with near the railway station, there is now a new “restaurant”, air-conditioned, where you can sample Surjeet Singh’s delicacies. We try the Amritsari fish (the Ista version is better), the totally fabulous mutton tikka (instead of the plain tandoori version, this one comes coated in a secret masala having been fried on a hot iron griddle as well after being over-roasted), first-rate tandoori chicken and soft, fluffy aloo kulchas. We are swelled and not just with Amritsari pride.

Back at Ista, next day is a relatively simple affair: Simple? Well, that’s not possible in this city. A lunch of chole kulche gets transformed to a gourmet meal thanks to what arrives at our table. Chickpeas in a curry that can only be attributed to another world — or to Amritsar’s terroir.

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3 Responses to “Street food binging in Amritsar”

  1. sannika says:

    Hi Anoothi ,

    I am planning a trip to Amritsar in the coming few months. After reading this post my culinary itinerary dilemma is absolutely resolved !! :) Looking forward to my visit now!